A couple sit at a table in their home relating their days at work. So far, so normal. But this is playwright Martin Crimp and director Katie Mitchell, so nothing is as it seems, finds Caroline Bishop at the Royal Court.
A blank white canvas of a set, upon which the shadows of the characters are projected, and the constant presence of disconcertingly eerie music, are indicators that Crimp’s familial drama The City sits in a surreal world.
Chris and Clair (Benedict Cumberbatch and Hattie Morahan) may seem a pretty ordinary couple in the beginnings of a marriage breakdown. Their young daughter may enjoy playing the piano. Their night-shift working neighbour Jenny (Amanda Hale) may be justified in coming to complain about the couple’s children being noisy. But none of this is related in a manner that rings true to an audience rooted in reality. However, while what is spoken makes little sense, what is left unspoken is more understandable. Chris feels a failure after losing his job. Clair’s work as a novel translator is overshadowed by a painful desire to be a writer herself. Jenny is so disturbed by stories of modern warfare that she cannot sleep.
As this 80-minute play progresses to its conclusion, costumes reveal that these characters are marooned in a bizarre, invented world. The couple’s daughter wears the same nurse’s outfit displayed by Jenny a few scenes previous. Chris turns up in the uniform of a supermarket meat counter worker, much like the one he had earlier described as worn by an old friend he encountered on a shopping trip. In the final scene, Jenny and the young child wear identical pink jeans, as described by Clair at the beginning of the play.
This repetition, it could be concluded, is a symptom of Clair’s lack of imagination. As her diary is read aloud by Chris, we understand Clair’s pain at discovering her shortcomings as a novelist. She has persevered anyway, writing a story where characters are undeveloped, dialogue is stilted and physical descriptions are lacking. Hopefully, this invented world is just Clair’s first draft – otherwise she should stick to the day job.